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If you go:

Laura Watt and Jonah Raskin, a Sonoma County author and retired SSU professor, will discuss her book, “The Paradox of Preservation,” from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Dance Palace Community Center in Point Reyes Station.

More information at dancepalace.org/events.


The endangered species at the heart of Sonoma State University professor Laura Alice Watt’s new book is Homo sapiens, specifically the ranching families of the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Watt, whose academic focus on the windswept Marin County peninsula goes back 20 years, is not sanguine about their prospects for survival.

The Point Reyes ranchers’ future is on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit alleging that cattle grazing harms the public land they lease from the government, while they also face increasingly marginal dairy and beef cattle operations, Watt said.

And if cattle grazing comes to an end, the landscape savored by 2.5 million seashore visitors each year will be dramatically altered.

“If you took all the grazing off Point Reyes you’re not going to have those emerald hills we all love so much,” Watt, 50, said in an interview at her home on Sonoma Mountain, just west of the SSU campus.

The peninsula’s rolling coastal prairies, kept open by foraging cattle just as they were by centuries of intentional burning by Miwok tribes, would be overgrown by coyote brush, Douglas fir and other vegetation.

“I am worried,” Watt said. “There’s a point where ranching is just not going to function anymore.”

That concern permeates her new book, “The Paradox of Preservation,” released in late November by University of California Press. In December, it was a top-10 seller at University Press Books, just across the street from the Cal campus.

The 345-page book, scrupulously researched with 860 footnotes, likely won’t make Watt any money to cover her pastimes of sailboat racing on San Francisco Bay and photography. Academic books are lucky to break even on financially, said the tenured professor of environmental history and policy.

Her hope is that “Paradox” may help the public and the National Park Service, which operates the 71,000-acre seashore, embrace the idea that preservation of wild places can also accommodate the human footprint, including sustainable farming, rather than steadfastly seeking to wipe it away.

“Point Reyes has long been ideally suited to be managed as … a place where the wild and the pastoral are not in competition but are complementary, thriving side by side,” she wrote.

The book is an extension of her 253-page doctoral dissertation on Point Reyes, started in 1997 and completed in 2001. “Paradox” updates the story with an additional 15 years of history, including an upheaval over oysters that Watt said took her by surprise.

At Point Reyes, oyster farming in Drake’s Estero, a 2,500-acre Pacific Ocean estuary, had been going on for 80 years until it was halted — by a Park Service edict bitterly contested in public and in dueling legal briefs but ultimately upheld by the federal courts — in December 2014.

One of Watt’s favorite places in Point Reyes is the tidelands where Schooner Creek flows into the estero, near the beach where all traces of the oyster company have been eradicated in a $4 million Park Service restoration project aimed at restoring the waterway to as close to a natural state as possible.

Watt does not consider herself a partisan in the seven-year skirmish that sharply divided the West Marin community, though she did file a friend of the court brief in support of agriculture and aquaculture continuing in Point Reyes.

If you go:

Laura Watt and Jonah Raskin, a Sonoma County author and retired SSU professor, will discuss her book, “The Paradox of Preservation,” from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Dance Palace Community Center in Point Reyes Station.

More information at dancepalace.org/events.

Her book, the legal brief, as well as two newspaper columns she penned, were intended to set the facts and the historical record straight, she said. In the wake of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co.’s shutdown, Watt and others expressed fear it would be the “first domino that results in the closure of the ranches, as well,” she wrote.

Last February, those fears became palpable when three environmental organizations filed a federal court lawsuit blaming cattle for polluting Point Reyes and asking for a halt to the Park Service’s work toward granting 20-year permits to the ranchers.

The suit is pending and neither government lawyers nor Park Service officials will comment on it, or the prospects for granting the long-term grazing permits offered by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in the same directive that foreclosed the oyster farm in 2012.

The ranchers, who no longer have any equity in their land, are now operating on one-year permit extensions. Nor can the ranchers defend their own interests in court because they are not parties to the environmental groups’ claims against the Park Service.

Watt and others fear the Park Service, vilified by many for ousting the oyster farm, may ultimately settle the case by closing some ranches or revising the permit conditions in ways that would constrain economically viable agriculture on lands that have been farmed for generations by Point Reyes families.

Jeff Chanin, a San Francisco attorney representing the environmental groups, said this week that settlement discussions are ongoing.

The title of Watt’s book, “Paradox of Preservation,” refers to her premise that preserving a landscape like Point Reyes invariably means altering it.

Point Reyes, where ranching dates back to the 1830s, has been transformed over the past half century as a park, with roughly half of its manmade structures demolished by the Park Service. Of the 25 working ranches in the seashore when it became a park in 1962, only 11 remain. The four backcountry campgrounds are located where dairies once stood and the trails leading to them follow former farm roads.

Watt offers, on the final page of the book, the hope that an appreciation for the seashore’s history can help Point Reyes ranchers, the Park Service and environmental interests “leave behind the threats and start to see a way forward to a more collaborative partnership in public land management.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.